The Iran talks: Spinning the spinners

I’ve twice read through this evening’s New York Times story about Iran and the United States agreeing in principle to direct talks, after a series of backchannel talks.

(An aside: I know "backchannel" is jargon, but there are times jargon’s very utilitarianism is its own laudable end; The Times’ "intense, secret excanges" suggests to me that a copy editor at that paper is overdosing a little on E. L. James.)

This is news, to be sure, in the sense that it adds detail and texture to an ongoing story. Obama administration officials have been saying for months that they have yet to exhaust diplomatic options; the natural correlation to such statements as that diplomatic options were being explored. We now know more about how they were explored. This deserves its front page placement.

What we don’t know is whether direct talks will bear results, because these talks have yet to start, if they ever start. (The Iranians, acording to the report, want the talks to start after the election.)

What bemuses me is the spin: The Times and BuzzFeed each frames the revelation, in strikingly different ways, against Monday night’s third and final presidential debate, this one focusing on foreign policy. The Times reports good news for Obama, BuzzFeed the opposite.

I don’t see it either way.

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The Times’ story, by Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, suggests news of the talks would favor President Obama in the debate.

It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but it could pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy time.

It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.

Caveats are added further down, but the appearance of the above high up in the story — and supportive quotes by former officials like Dennis Ross — make it clear the Times thinks this is good news for Obama.

BuzzFeed’s pickup with original reporting added by Ben Smith and Zeke Miller leans strictly the other way — this is good news for Mitt Romney, the only caveat being whether Romney knows how to use it:

Iran, however, is one arena in which Republicans believe they have a strong case to make. Neither Obama’s early, extended hand, nor his later push toward sanctions, appear to have stopped the country’s nuclear program, which Iran asserts — to international skepticism — is peaceful.

Romney’s campaign had no comment Saturday, but Republicans said they expect Iran, and Saturday’s news, to take center stage in the final debate of the presidential cycle Monday, which will focus on foreign policy.

"This whole thing should be a gift for Mitt," said a Republican operative who works on foreign policy. "It’s an embarrassing reminder of how little progress they’ve made on Iran and it comes on the eve of the foreign policy debate."

"It’s a big opportunity, but there is a lot of risk after Tuesday night," said another Republican, who is close to the campaign, referring to Romney’s Libya stumble last week. 

The BuzzFeed subhead says it all: "A gift for Mitt."

I’m not sure how this is a gift for either candidate. The news here is confirmation of what anyone who tracks Iran suspected was going on — backchannel talks. It hews exactly to each campaign’s take on the utility of diplomacy: The Obama administration believes diplomacy has yet to play itself out; So does Romney, although he is more skeptical of its proportional weight in Iran dealings, and believes Obama has mishandled its big stick corrolary.

Without knowing what direct talks would achieve, neither side is validated. Each is free to make its case based on the facts — which are little changed from yesterday.

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